Customer Service Under Fire

An unusual travel experience recently taught me a lot about customer service. Shortly after we boarded the plane for a flight from Little Rock to Denver, the captain made a vague announcement that we were having issues and would need to deplane. He gave no indication as to what the issue might be. As an experienced flier that struck me as unusual. We returned to the gate and began our wait.

Sitting near the desk, we overheard the gate agent explaining the reason for our delay to her superior. During the boarding process a passenger jokingly asked a flight attendant if the flight crew was sober. She responded in a joking way that they had spent the morning in the bar. A second passenger, overhearing the exchange and apparently not appreciating the humor, escalated the issue to the airline. The result?  Our original flight crew was disqualified and a new crew had to be found. They were. Four hours later. To borrow from Dave Berry, I am not making this up.

During that 240-minute wait I learned a lot by observing the airline staff. In particular, from one awesome gate agent.

MAKE THOSE MOST OF A BAD SITUATION. A service provider’s worst nightmare is a self-inflicted problem. A client of mine who was coincidentally on the same flight mentioned how deeply the airline must have been impacted by such a delay. The chances of lost baggage probably rose dramatically. Arrangements had to be made for a replacement crew. Concessions were made for dozens of passengers who would miss connecting flights.

In the midst of all this chaos was this lone gate agent. Working by herself and delivering outstanding customer service. She effectively dealt with scores of upset passengers. Her attitude was exceptional. She defused angry customers with a smile and a sense of humor. She came close to losing her cool only once with a customer who deserved a rude response. When it comes to managing customers in a tough situation, I want to be like her when I grow up!

EMPATHY FOR THE CUSTOMER. As my wife and I were driving to the airport that morning, I commented that it was nice to be on a direct flight. We had no reason to be worry about a connection. No concern about our bags being transferred. I have to work hard at being patient, especially as a traveler. The pressure of meeting deadlines when I have no control unnerves me. But, I had allocated a full travel day ahead of my meeting. Unlike others on the flight, I had no deadline to meet. Instead of being upset, it was easy to feel sorry for those who were terribly inconvenienced. Considering how little I had really been impacted, it was easy to feel empathy for others.

That gate agent was well trained by someone. It might have been the airline, but her behavior was more likely the product of a good upbringing. As we would say down South, “Her mama raised her right.” It was obvious that she was motivated, in large part, by her empathy for the customer. She graciously listened to the circumstance of each customer and made sure that their needs were met.

CONSEQUENCES. That brings us to the poor flight attendant. A seemingly innocent, ridiculously-simple exchange had enormous consequence. The thought occurred to me that the airline probably updated their training manual that very day. Never joke about pilot sobriety. It reminded me how important it is to be continually aware of my remarks, especially when I am in a customer-facing situation. I’m certain that the flight attendant had no intention of ruining anyone’s day, but the consequences of her response certainly did.

When it comes to customer service, remember these three things.  View bad situations as an opportunity to deliver exceptional service. Empathize with your customer. Never forget that your communications have consequences – either good or bad.

Make this a great day!